As we grow older, we’re more likely to experience loneliness. Because of hearing loss, lack of mobility, limited social support, and other factors, about 1 in 4 adults age 65 and older are considered socially isolated, according to a 2020 report cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts point to smaller social circles when we leave the workforce and living alone after a spouse dies as reasons why seniors are especially at risk for loneliness. Physical distancing and quarantining during the pandemic made matters worse.
“It’s a domino effect. It can start out as loneliness, but the issue just continues to grow and impact the person and their quality of life,” says Sabrina Farina, a senior social worker at the Gulf States Hemophilia and Thrombophilia Center in Houston. Feelings of isolation and loneliness can lead to higher stress levels, cardiovascular problems, cognitive impairment, and depression.
Here’s how older people can make meaningful connections for better mental health.
1. Speak Up About Loneliness
Many older adults are accustomed to tackling problems on their own. But Dana Marie Kennedy, state director for AARP Arizona, says this can be harmful for those dealing with loneliness — the very people who need others’ help.
“We definitely have to encourage people it’s OK to say you need help,” Kennedy says. “If anything, COVID helped us start talking about our mental health more openly.”
If you’re not sure where to turn, start with a trusted health care provider, who can offer a safe place to talk and resources to help.
2. Actively Connect with Others
The people who make you feel connected — whether it’s a longtime neighbor or your cribbage club — provide a valuable support system that can help prevent loneliness.
It can be difficult to reach back out to old friends or groups, especially if it’s been a while. Be encouraged by how engaged and energized you felt when you were together, and keep in mind that they might delight in hearing from you again.
With old connections reestablished, think about growing your social circle.
“Consider the ways you can expand your support system where you already feel comfortable, like your house of worship,” Farina suggests.
3. Prioritize In-Person Interaction
In-person activities are key, especially for those living alone, says Len Kirschner, M.D., past president of AARP Arizona.
“The ability to use FaceTime and other technology helps, but it doesn’t really replace one-on-one interaction,” he says.
Continuing-care communities count, as they offer rich social engagement programs. Also consider taking classes at the local community college, joining an exercise group, or volunteering at the neighborhood animal rescue.
“You have a better chance of having a good life span if you have good social relationships,” Kirschner says. “Seek out places where you can meet people, develop relationships, and build community.”
Find meaning by giving to others: Volunteering gives people a sense of belonging and purpose.